February 18, 2011

J.C. Penny Got Busted!: What their Link Scheme Means for You

BY John Paul Narowski IN Sales and Marketing 0 Comment

A February 12th article in the NY Times, exposed that the giant retail outlet, J.C. Penny, was using low quality paid links to game Google’s organic search engine results.  This allowed them to rank #1 for a multitude of valuable search terms during the lucrative Holiday Season.

Google took immediate action, which, while unknown to those outside of the Google mother-ship, has reduced the rankings of the retailer’s site across the board.

This is the largest link scheme to be outed since the 2006 BMW slap by Google, and will have serious implications down the road for anyone doing business online.

Here is what you should take away from the whole debacle:

Google is Not Omnipresent and Infallible

One of two things happened here:

  1. The agency running J.C. Penny’s search engine optimization (SEO) pulled the wool over Big G’s eyes in an audacious scheme to out rank hundreds of millions of competing sites, exposing a serious chink in their search engine’s armor. Or…
  2. As some have suggested, Google was well aware of what was going on but turned a blind eye because of the large amounts of revenue they were making from J.C. Penny’s huge paid search buys.  J.C. Penny is one Google’s largest advertisers, paying them almost $2.5 million a month for paid search results!

Either way, Google is not some all powerful search engine deity waiting to smite you.  They have rules and if you break them AND you get caught, they will punish you.

Is the game rigged for the big players? Maybe…

100% Natural Link Building is a Myth

Google often makes it seem as though any attempt to build links to your site is a bad thing, but a site with 100% natural back links is rare.  Show me a site that did no SEO work, published content, waiting while people linked to it and is now popular.

In our last post, How to Raise Your Google Rank, we mentioned ways to play by Google’s rules and increase your rankings.  Even these “white hat” methods are not natural and if they were to be abused (ie, 10,000 articles posted in a day), you’d be punished.

It All Come Down to Quality

When defending J.C. Penny, Darcie Brossart, J.C. Penney’s VP of Corporate Communication said in an email:

Our natural search program has never included paid web links, like those described in the article. It is against our policy, and the fact is, we don’t need to them to build our Google rankings.

We have millions of links from our web partnerships and programs that already gave us link popularity. These included links from our 1.4m Facebook fans, who clicked from Facebook to jcp.com; social media and fashion bloggers; our holiday partnerships with Yahoo!, Microsoft, Time Warner, Hearst. Our links on these sites during the holidays had editorially relevant content and pointed to our product pages.

These links and ones like them are what drove our relevancy rankings on Google, not the unauthorized, low quality links that the New York Times reported on.

Brossart’s statement points out a glaring contradiction with Google’s ranking system.

She claims they have never paid for links, yet says that a lot of their links are from “partnerships” with major online media outlets and “fashion bloggers.”  Did these bloggers and giant media conglomerates just link to them because of their killer content?

I think not.

So, the message we’re getting is that it’s OK to unnaturally engineer link profiles and it’s OK to buy links.  You just can’t buy links from low quality sites that aren’t relevant to your market.   And when you do buy links, don’t be obvious about it.

What does this mean for you?

If you depend on your website for a sizable portion of your income or want to see it succeed, follow the rules that Google has laid out.

Grow your link profile by creating unique and engaging content and spreading it around the web on relevant sites, forums and directories.  Create content your customers would want to read instead of what you think a search engine spiders wants.

Anything other than that and you’re risking the wrath of Google.

They can change their algorithms on a dime and what was OK yesterday may get you banned today.  They have egg on their face right now, so expect a strong show of force in the near future.

Stick to the basics and you won’t get caught in their war path.

I’ve been hacking at various business ideas since I was 16. I’m a full stack developer and love crafting user experiences. I’ve been nose deep in code since I put the legos down, and built several successful businesses in the process. I’ve lost some hair, gained some experience and throughly enjoyed the journey.

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